When Healthy Products Are Overhyped

Natural medicine and holistic health solutions deserve the support and backing of the scientific community. Being truly healthy isn’t really possible without using natural methods for wellness. But you need to watch out for companies that make far-fetched claims like the capacity for instantly curing serious disease. While holistic methods can produce immediate improvements, they often yield gradual, long-range benefits that lead to optimal health.

Consider the controversy over the Dannon brand of yogurt called Activia, a mainstream product whose marketing messages have drawn fire and a lawsuit.

Good Bacteria

Activia includes probiotics, live bacteria that are touted to both regulate digestion and improve one’s immune system. These bacteria live naturally in your intestines, although scientists believe that, as one ages, these good-for-you and necessary microorganisms dwindle in number. According to the marketing claims made by Dannon, the probiotics included in its Activia brand yogurt at once resupply your intestines with more probiotics while improving your health via immune system support.

Before diving into the details of the lawsuit, I’d like to state that probiotics are definitely beneficial. Again, my issue is with false or overstated health claims being attached to natural products, thereby giving the entire field a bad name. As a matter of fact, even the World Health Organization gives probiotics the thumbs up: “Live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”

Probiotic health benefits are many, and include digestive support and immune system strengthening that lowers your risk for colds and upper respiratory tract infections.

For instance, reviews of probiotic studies find that they can help protect different parts of the body. Here are two abstracts that detail this kind of protection:

Probiotics For Treating Acute Infectious Diarrhea

Nearly all studies reported a shortened duration of diarrhea and reduced stool frequency in people who received probiotics compared to the controls. Overall, probiotics reduced the duration of diarrhea by about 25 hours and the risk of diarrhea lasting four or more days by 59 percent, and probiotics resulted in about one fewer diarrheal stool on day 2 after the intervention. However, there was very marked variability in the study findings, so these estimates are approximate. We concluded that these results were very encouraging, but more research is needed to identify exactly which probiotics should be used for which groups of people and to assess the cost-effectiveness of this treatment.

Probiotics To Prevent Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

The live-microorganisms intervention was found to be better than placebo in reducing the number of participants experiencing episodes of acute URTI (upper respiratory tract infections) and the rate ratio of episodes of acute URTI, but the results in our review showed some limitations. Limited information from only three of the trials showed that live microorganisms can reduce the prescription of antibiotics.

Good Things

Probiotics are indisputably good things: friendly bacteria that aid digestion, support immunity and decrease the length of influenza infections and diarrhea. So why is Dannon being sued for its probiotic yogurt brand, Activia?

The suit holds that the Dannon’s marketing claims have been over the top.

According to the lawsuit details, about 40 percent of Dannon’s sales (roughly $100 million) from 2008 were directly linked to its two probiotic brands, Activia and DanActive. The public outcry came when consumers realized that they were duped by Dannon into paying 30 percent more for these beneficial bacteria yogurt products than for other regular yogurts. The lawsuit seeks remuneration to consumers who purchased Activia believing the product had better health benefits than normal yogurt.

Dannon, the suit says, failed to show studies proving Activia provided consumers with “health benefits superior to other brands of yogurt.” In other words, despite its higher price and impressive advertising campaign, Activia offers the same probiotic benefits as any other run-of-the-mill regular yogurt. (Other mainstream marketers have run into trouble making claims for things like special soaps.)

Claim Jumping

This brings me back to my opening point that natural health products are generally good for you. Distrust and trouble come from false claims, often fantastical ones, that are not clinically proven. Testing overinflated claims reveals a paucity of evidence. Yes, scientific evidence does support the product’s efficacy but doesn’t jibe with the exaggerated marketing messages.

In the end, it’s not the particular product so much as the natural element itself that is most useful. You can do without spending extra on Activia, but getting your probiotics is a good thing. They are in fermented dairy products, yogurt, soy products, tempeh and supplements.


Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.